Hillel and the NY Senate

Around two thousand years ago a great Jewish Rabbi said: “If I am only for myself / Who am I? / If I am not for myself /Who will be for me?” Looking at what has been happening at the New York State Senate through the lens of Hillel’s words leads me to a somewhat more nuanced and tolerant reaction to what has been going on.

We Americans tend to be all or nothing kinds of folk. We think of people as either good or bad and if people are bad, throw the so-and-so’s out, lock em up, get rid of them. If people are selfish, proud, ambitious for themselves, then they cannot be servants of the people too. Except of course we are worshipping what does not, indeed cannot exist. Politicians cannot be unambitious or modest. And they have to look out for themselves.

But those faults, and they certainly are faults whenever politicians let those desires get out of control, are not inconsistent with a real potential for good work too. Only God and the Devil are good and evil through and through.

So we should not be surprised to find that the two men who have thrown the state Senate into turmoil have done things that we can all approve, have worked for causes larger than themselves. And I think the untold story here is the maturation of the Puerto Rican community in New York. They’re asking through these two men for a piece of the action. Just as the black community and all of us who have worked so long for civil rights have been celebrating the election and savvy of our first African-American president, and the rise of our first African-American New York Governor, embattled though he is, the Puerto Rican community sees itself as entitled too. These may be the wrong guys. But we didn’t pick them.

Of course many of us wanted something different. Some of us want to wait until the 2010 elections so the Democrats can control redistricting. Others are upset because the turmoil comes at a bad time for our particular agendas. As it happens, I wrote one of the two senators about an issue that I knew he cared about in the past, trying to find a way to bring the civil liberties issues to the successful conclusion we envisioned so recently. So, yes, I’m one of those discomforted by the upheaval.

And yes, both men have done bad things in their personal lives and ethics. Neither is entitled to a pass on that score. But politics is about competing agendas. The mark of a good politician is to be able to handle those competing claims. And there’s no need to see each other as devils.

– Broadcast on WAMC Midday Magazine, June 18, 2009


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